Elliott Abrams was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the “Arab Spring,” but he also loves the kingdom that has done (and spent) the most to suppress it.
It’s the kind of contradiction that has often afflicted neoconservatives like Abrams who profess both a passion for democracy and human rights and a deep devotion to Israel’s security.
When there’s choice, however, Israel usually wins out.
In Abrams’ case, that was made pretty clear in a celebratory post (“The Saudis and Israel”) published on his “Pressure Points” blog on the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) website earlier this month. The occasion was the publication of an Israeli-conducted poll of Saudi citizens, 53% of whom named Iran (and not Israel) as their country’s main enemy, and Abrams’ own chairing of a CFR event at which it was publicly disclosed for the first time that former senior Israeli and Saudi officials had been engaged in a secret Track II–type dialogue for more than a year.
The dialogue’s main participants were Saudi Maj. Gen. Anwar Eshki (ret.) and Dore Gold, a long-time adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is about to become director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry (probably to enforce a little discipline on those pesky, independent-minded professional diplomats). They —devoted most of their presentations to discussing their mutual hostility toward Iran, a subject dear to Abrams, who described the dialogue as “a positive development” and urged future U.S. administrations to “seek quietly to explore and to expand these first seedlings of contact.” (He dismissed the possibility that the Obama administration could do that, “because its failings are in no small part what brings [sic] Israelis and Arab states to talk in the first place.”)
Of course, these seedlings are hardly “the first,” as Brookings Institution’s Tamara Cofman Wittes observed. She also noted that Gen. Eshki may have become something of a has-been given his past association with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, among others, and the dramatic changes in Riyadh that have been wrought in recent months under King Salman. According to Wittes:
[W]e shouldn’t overstate the novelty of Israeli-Saudi engagement—since the 1960s, the two sides have found ways to communicate and even cooperate when facing shared regional challenges. Then it was Egypt’s Nasser; today it’s Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
With Reagan and Bush
In between, of course, it was also the Soviet Union against which the Reagan administration tried hard to forge an elusive “strategic consensus” among Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states. Abrams, who served in top State Department positions in human rights and then on Latin America (where he was caught up in the Iran-contra scandal), probably did what he could to promote such a consensus. As assistant secretary for inter-American affairs he no doubt encouraged Israel and Saudi Arabia to help out—which they did—the Nicaraguan contras and Guatemala when the U.S. Congress made it difficult for the Reagan administration to do so. At that time, of course, support for repressive, dictatorial, and even genocidal (such as Guatemala in the early 1980s) regimes, not to mention insurgencies that often resorted to terrorist tactics (the contras, UNITA in Angola, the mujahidin “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan) was justified by the larger moral purpose of defeating the Soviet Union. As Abrams, then Reagan’s human rights chief, reportedly told one interviewer, “The great threat to human rights is the Soviet Union, not Guatemala or the Philippines.”
After wandering in the neoconservative think-tank wilderness for 12 years, Abrams returned to government under George W. Bush whom he served as special assistant and senior director of the National Security Council (NSC) for democracy, human rights, and international organizations from 2001 to December 2002, then as senior director of the National Security Council for Near East and North African affairs. He then effectively combined the two positions as deputy national security advisor for global democracy strategy from 2005 until Bush left office in 2009. Since all of these were NSC posts, he never had to endure Senate confirmation (which he was considered unlikely to get due to his having been convicted of lying to Congress during the Iran-contra hearings) or testify before congressional committees. It was during Bush’s second term that Abrams reportedly encouraged Israel to attack Syria as part of its war against Hezbollah and urged elements in Fatah to mount a coup against Hamas after it swept the 2006 elections in Gaza and the West Bank.
Nonetheless, Abrams has always depicted himself as a champion of democracy and human rights, and, as much as I hate to say so, I don’t think he’s entirely insincere (emphasis on entirely). There’s little question, for example, that he helped undermine Pinochet in Chile toward the end of the Reagan administration. And, even while he publicly defended (and lied about) the performance of the Salvadoran military (Guatemala’s, too), he probably pressed pretty hard on its leadership to reduce their death-squad proclivities. Since the Arab Awakening, Abrams has also pretty strongly condemned repression of the Shia majority in Bahrain and the Muslim Brotherhood (as well as liberal and human-rights activists) in Egypt since the coup (despite Israel’s strong support for Gen. Al-Sisi) and the Obama’s sometimes unhappy or reluctant acquiescence in both. Unlike most other neocons, he has also favored U.S. engagement with political Islam, although Hamas and Hezbollah are apparently beyond the pale.
Indeed, even while some neocons were predicting that the “Arab Spring” would turn into winter, Abrams celebrated the movement as a vindication of Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom.” In January, 2012, he wrote:
The Arab Spring is therefore not a peculiarity of history, but a natural outcome for regimes that had quite simply become illegitimate in the eyes of their subjects. Of the possible sources of legitimacy — such as democracy, religion, monarchic succession, or the creation of great prosperity — they had none. They were kept in place solely by force, and they were far less stable than the vast majority of scholars, diplomats, and political leaders thought…
Thus the neocons, democrats, and others who applauded the Arab uprisings were right, for what was the alternative? To applaud continued oppression? To instruct the rulers on better tactics, the way Iran is presumably lecturing (and arming) Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Such a stance would have made a mockery of American ideals, would have failed to keep these hated regimes in place for very long, and would have left behind a deep, almost ineradicable anti-Americanism. This kind of so-called “realpolitik” is the path U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration took after the Greek military coup in 1967, and nearly a half-century later the Greeks have still not forgiven the United States.[Emphasis added]
Dealing with the Saudis
But how does Abrams reconcile these noble and idealistic sentiments (which also reflect a degree of realism about the long-term impact of support for oppressive regimes) with his enthusiastic embrace of a Saudi-Israel entente? Particularly when it is Saudi Arabia that is bankrolling and Israel that is “applaud[ing] continued oppression” (especially in Egypt and Bahrain, not to mention its gratuitous destruction of Yemen, something that should alarm any serious human rights advocate)? After all, Riyadh and the other Gulf monarchies have led the counter-revolution against the popular movements that Abrams himself has so eloquently extolled just three years ago. Has he done a 180? Or was his advice directed exclusively at the U.S. (which presumably can afford a degree of idealism) and wasn’t meant to apply to the despised “realpolitik” practiced by Riyadh or to Tel Aviv? It’s all very confusing.
In any event, we now have the vision of Bush’s top aide for global democracy promotion, with special responsibility for the Middle East, enthusiastically applauding the “seedlings” of an alliance between the most reactionary, autocratic, and monarchical regime in the region and that exemplar of liberal western values, as neoconservatives like Abrams always describe Israel. (It was, of course, neocon renegade Bob Kagan—who worked for Abrams in the State Department 30 years ago—who pointed out the hypocrisy of his fellow-neocons and other pro-Israel hawks who rallied behind Bush’s “Freedom of Agenda” after the Iraq invasion only to abandon it after the “Arab Spring” propelled political Islamists and other popular forces to the forefront throughout much of the region. Israel, he noted last year, “has never supported democracy anywhere in the Middle East except Israel.”)
One explanation for Abrams’ satisfaction with these “seedlings,” of course, lies with the larger threat (in his mind, at least) to Israel’s security and U.S. regional hegemony that Iran poses. Much as he argued that the threat to “human rights” posed by the Soviet Union 30 years ago justified supporting all manner of “friendly” dictators and genocidal regimes, like Guatemala’s, so Bush’s apostle of freedom and democracy now sees a rising Iran as justification for Washington’s nurturing an alliance between that lonely beacon of western values, Israel, and the region’s most reactionary, oppressive, and increasingly aggressive state. Sounds like “realpolitik” to me.